Germany begins effort to shed Nazi past, end national preoccupation

BERLIN — BERLIN -- A half-century ago, it would have been a scene weighted with peril, perhaps even a matter of life or death: A scribbling German bureaucrat was asking questions of a Jewish woman.

But this was the 1990s, and the woman, who was American, had come with her German fiance to get a marriage license.


Then history cast its shadow.

"Your religion?" the bureaucrat asked.


"Jewish," the woman replied. The scribbling pen halted. Dead silence followed.

"I can't write that," the man finally said. He became flustered, then turned an imploring gaze to the fiance, as if to say, "You're German, you understand."

Then the man explained. "We don't say Jewish," he said. "We say Mosaisch." As in, the people of Moses.

"I've encountered just about every roundabout way of saying somebody is Jewish," Eve Schaenen recalled later. "But this. It was a word they still couldn't say."

There are lots of words Germans can't say easily anymore. "Sonderbehandlung" (special treatment, the euphemism for sending people to the gas chamber) is one. "Endloesung" (final solution) is another. Both remain locked in the forbidden glossary of Nazi genocide. Nor does the word "Hitler" roll easily off many tongues.

From embarrassed bureaucrats to lordly government ministers, Germany today is filled with people who either cannot or will not do certain things because of what other Germans did on battlefields and in concentration camps more than 50 years ago.

Now, however, some German leaders think the time has come to move on. And with this week's 50th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp looming as the first in a series of end-of-World War II observances, the German government has subtly set out to loosen the tight grip of history.

Advisers to Chancellor Helmut Kohl have said recently that he hopes to use the anniversaries as a starting point for a new era, moving at last out of a cramped corner of belated guilt and introspection.


Roman Herzog, who as Germany's president is the semiofficial spokesman for the national conscience, has also joined in, speaking recently of Germany and its neighbors "gradually beginning to write a common European history."

The success of such delicate efforts could affect everything from the way Germany deals with Europe and the United States -- by sending more troops to help United Nations peacekeeping efforts, for example -- to the way Germans deal with themselves.

War-related angst

But events of the past decade indicate that Mr. Kohl's attempt may be doomed to fail. Because if any single group seems determined to prevent Germany from reassuming the obligations a "normal" nation, it is the Germans themselves, baffled as ever over how to come to terms with their history.

War-related angst creeps into debate on virtually every major policy question, much in the way racial questions lurk within so many U.S. issues. "It is the most important question in our political culture," said history Professor Wolfgang Wipperman of the Free University of Berlin.

And it is evident in countless daily events.


Anja Kolaschnik, a German who recently moved to Brussels, Belgium, to work for the European Parliament, recalled how a U.S. rock band unwittingly tapped into complex currents of German thought during a Berlin concert a few years ago. The band asked the crowd of youthful Germans to raise its right hands en masse and yell, "Boom, boom."

"Most people didn't want to do it," she said, "and those who did gave the peace sign."

The reason?

A field of raised right hands would look uncomfortably like newsreel footage of a Nazi rally. Besides, it's illegal in Germany to give a Nazi salute. It is illegal, too, to shout "Sieg heil" -- Hail victory.

Many awkward moments concern Der Fuehrer himself. When educators last winter proposed a Hitler comic book for teaching the Nazi era to younger children, authorities canceled the plan, fretting that the Hitler character might be too seductive despite his obvious evil.

There was the soccer match set for Hamburg in April between Germany and England on, coincidentally, Hitler's birthday. Hamburg canceled it over worries about neo-Nazis, so Berlin offered its soccer field -- in Hitler's Olympic Stadium. England canceled.


In 1990, workers discovered an intact section of the underground Fuehrer bunker in central Berlin, complete with eerie murals of black-booted SS men and happy Aryan families. Should it be opened as a museum? Seal it up forever, the Berlin Senate said.

Germany's history neurosis can also be found in the noticeable philo-Semitism co-existing alongside lingering strains of anti-Semitism. A few non-Jewish Germans go so far as to wear replicas of the Star-of-David arm patches Jews had to wear during the Nazi years.

Ms. Schaenen, the American woman, said: "Ninety percent of the women I've met have told me they dreamed of being Jewish when they were a kid. Some of them had Nazis in their families, and I think it was a certain kind of teen-age fantasy to be able to finally not to have to identify with the bad guys."

Forgetting the past

It hasn't been this way for long. For the first two decades after the war, Germans were too busy rebuilding the country and forgetting the past. Many considered the Nuremberg war crime trials to be a case of victors' justice, never mind the horrific testimony; and with a Cold War to be won, the United States didn't care to keep dredging up the Nazi past.

Then came the Auschwitz trials of 1963, just as the postwar generation was coming of age. This time Germans were prosecuting Germans. Camp officers and guards were charged with crimes againsthumanity. Professor Wipperman said the tide began to turn.


The trials were the early education for West Germany's so-called '68ers. While American teens rebelled by burning draft cards, their German counterparts fought their elders by raking up history. Teens looked closely at their family trees and were horrified to find the limbs sagging with Nazis, SS men and hausfrauen who had dutifully raised large broods for the thousand-year Reich.

The generation plunged into the legacy of German shame and guilt, vowing to teach their offspring everything they'd learned. On came the classes of "political education," complete with the graphic films of bulldozed bodies and piles of human hair.

The doses often came without preparation. "All the kids were sitting there shivering and being scared to death," Ms. Kolaschnik, 28, recalled of the films. "The teachers who were young really pushed the subject, while those who were older didn't want to teach you anything at all about it."

There was a flip side to this education. "You never talked much about national feelings," Ms. Kolaschnik said. "There were no parades, no anthems. All throughout school we were instructed to never do anything that was 'German.' "

A different view

In the meantime, students in East Germany were getting a different view, with the East playing up the anti-fascist, anti-Hitler past of its Communist roots. And as the difference widened, both East and West drew attention to signs of Nazism in the other.


West Germany detected a pale ghost of Hitler and his Gestapo in the likes of East German leader Erich Honecker and his notorious Stasi security apparatus. East Germany regularly exposed former Nazis among the businessmen and bankers who helped guide West Germany's "economic miracle."

Not until 1986 did some West German historians begin to question this progression, and they were led by Professor Ernst Nolte, who, like Professor Wipperman, now teaches at the Free University of Berlin.

The horrors of the Third Reich were being viewed out of context, Professor Nolte argued. He said that the rise of the Nazis could be seen as a natural albeit evil occurrence -- if viewed as a response to the earlier horrors of 20th-century Bolshevism.

'An ideological crime'

"The question is not if one damns this crime [of Nazism]. Everybody does," he said in an interview this month. "But I have always said that this was an ideological crime, and not a German crime.

"I say this not because I am a German but because I want to remind people, as a historian, that the Nazis also had a thesis. I do not mean that Nazism was normal. Far from it. But it was not isolated in its era, and we must look at the totalitarian character of the early part of the century first."


By portraying the Nazi phenomenon as a ghastly response to a equally ghastly threat, Professor Nolte's argument tends to minimize Nazi guilt, even though he insists that is not his intent. It then follows naturally that Germany may ease back toward "normalcy" in foreign policy and national affairs.

One who has taken comfort from Professor Nolte's writings is Karl Welker, a former army major. During the 1945 battle for Berlin, Mr. Welker spoke with Hitler in his bunker only a few days before the dictator's suicide. He admits to being mesmerized.

"Today I say, 'God, I was stupid those days,' but only because of the knowledge I have now.

"What can I say? Before the war I was in favor of it all, and it was wrong. And in Germany, the majority was standing behind the government, otherwise the war wouldn't have been possible."

But just when it seemed that Professor Nolte's arguments might be gaining a firmer footing, along came German reunification in 1990. Suddenly it was more confusing than ever to be a German. Not only did two distinct approaches to history have to be melded, but there were also renewed fears of a reborn greater Germany.

Such fears weren't eased by an outbreak of violence by young neo-Nazis against foreigners, even if the far-right political movement soon fizzled at the polls. Equally unnerving were high levels of unemployment not seen since the ruinous years in which Hitler rose to power. So, Germany again resisted all calls for "normalcy"; it continued to shape its policies as a nation deeply suspicious of itself.


Professor Nolte, meanwhile, has seen the currency of his opinions devalued to their lowest point ever. He seems puzzled, even hurt, by the reaction. But time will eventually carry the day for some of his conclusions. Germans in their teens and early 20s seem to have had their fill of Holocaust education, according to polling. Why should they feel guilty simply for being German, they complain.

Some people closer to the age of Ms. Schaenen, 31, also tend toward this view, she said. "Most people our age, they had three years of it in high school. It's all they ever see and all they ever hear, and they're sick to death of it."

Israeli president to visit

It is amid this atmosphere that Mr. Kohl will build his careful case for new thinking. One of the centerpieces of the campaign will be the visit of Israeli President Ezer Weizman, expected sometime around May 8, the 50th anniversary of V-E Day. The timing of the visit will in a way represent the sum of all guilts for postwar Germany and would seem to offer an opportunity for a symbolic absolution.

Professor Wipperman isn't buying it. "It is ridiculous to invite Mr. Weizmann and say, 'Oh, now we have a real Jew here so that we can finally say that everything is over and all is forgiven,' " he said.

Germans cannot yet move on, he argues, because other parts of Europe have not. "Last year, in a lecture in Norway, I was forbidden from speaking in German," he said. "For them the war is over, but it is much more than a memory."


Couldn't the same be said for Germany, sometimes to the point of obsession?

"It is not an obsession," he said. "It is natural and necessary."